Eiteljorg Museum

Indianapolis, IN




Powerful Images: Portrayals of Native America


For many, the term "American Indian" brings to mind a warrior on horseback, eagle feather bonnet streaming behind him as he rides at fizll gallop across the Western Plains. That image is one of the stereotypes a new exhibition at the Eiteljorg Museum hopes to dispel.

Powerful Images: Portrayals of Native America, a thought-provoking multimedia exhibition about the perceptions and stereotypes surrounding Native American images in cultural history, opens at the Eiteljorg Museum Sept, 26, 1998.

The exhibition compares the "popular" images of Native Americans in mainstream literature, art, film and advertising with how Native Americans represent themselves through their own artistic traditions. Materials range from paintings and sculptures to children's toys and neon signs.

For example, probably no stereotype is more pervasive than that of the feathered headdress.

"The image of a mounted warrior wearing a flowing eagle-feather headdress is the first thing that pops into many people's minds when they hear the words 'Native American," said Ray Gonyea (Onondaga), curator of Native American art and culture at the Eiteljorg Museum. "Historically, Native Americans all wore distinctively different styles of headdress, clothing and decoration to differentiate themselves from their enemies before they got too close.

"However, the eagle-feather headdress stereotype is so entrenched in the American psyche that businesses, recognizing this, use the image of a Plains Indian feather headdress to instantly convey the idea of Indian," Gonyea added. The exhibition includes an eagle-feather headdress with trailer from the Lakota (Sioux), circa 1890, and a sign from the 1960s depicting - in neon - an Indian in a feathered headdress.

In reality, Native American cultural groups are as different from one another as any two cultural groups in the world.

More than 500 cultural groups in eight broad geographic regions throughout the United States make up Native America. The incredible diversity in language, customs, clothing, lifestyles and religious practices should make generalizations impossible.

Unfortunately, such diversity didn't make for good films, where the Indian often was typecast: deerskin moccasins, feathered headdresses, horses and tipis. Even some of the most well-known Western artists romanticized Native Americans by choosing special, ceremonial activities to represent daily Indian life and by depicting these frozen moments in time as dramatically as possible. As a result, the public developed mental images of Native Americans that were far off the mark.

In reality, Native American cultural groups are as different from one another as any two cultural groups in the world. For example, Indians from the Woodland tribes in the East and Midwest traditionally grew corn and adapted European homes and dress early on, while Indians from California were hunters and gatherers who had little involvement with non-Indians until Russians and Spaniards found the California region.

An array of educational programs will accompany the exhibition, including lectures, family classes and workshops, family activity guides and other public programs. For teachers and students, the museum will present an accredited workshop for educators through Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. Related items and a 160-page catalogue featuring full-color images and scholarly essays will be available at White River Trader, the museum store.

The exhibit will be online, too. The Museums West web site will feature an online version ofthe exhibition and a link to an online curriculum guide. The address is http://www.museumswest.org/. Museums West is a dynamic consortium of 10 outstanding museums in North America. Each of these institutions houses permanent collections of historically and aesthetically important art and artifacts and produces a wide variety of Western-related educational exhibits and public programs. Collectively, the members of Museums West also share resources and organize collaborative projects to further their individual institutional goals.

The exhibition and its North American presentation are made possible by Ford Motor Company. Additional funding for this exhibition is provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, federal agencies, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Local funding provided by Conseco Inc. and Baker & Daniels. The exhibition is a collaborative project of Museums West and pulls from participating museums' collections.


Images from top to bottom:

Image 1: American Indian Gothic, David Bradley (Chippewa/Lakota), 1983. Color lithograph. Buffalo Bill Historical Center, gift of Mrs. Damaras D. W. Ethridge. "When I first entered the somewhat glamorous world of professional art, I thought I would steer clear of politics and keep my life as simple and positive as possible. Evenrually, I realized that Indians are, by definition, political beings... I saw the continual exploitation of the Indian art community by museums in the Southwest...l witnessed multi-million dollar fraud by pseudo-Indian artists... and so [I] began to speak out on what I saw as widespread corruption in the art world. " - David Bradley (p. 112);

Image 2: Lobby card: The Vaaishing American, Paramount, 1926. Autry Museum of Western Heritage. "Based upon the writing of Zane Crey, this film, starring a white actor, conveyed the sense of 1926 sympathy for the Indian." (p. 96);

Image 3: Trade sign, Pontiac Automobiles, 1940s. Autry Museum of Western Heritage. "This weather vane is typical of those used to decorate car dealerships throughout the country. The image of the Indian became a generic one, a familiar silhouette used to represent Pontiac cars." (p. 89);

Image 4: Tonto poster, Wheaties cereal premium. Autry Museum of Western Heritage. "Cereal box tops made it possible for children in the 1950s to acquire posters of the Lone Ranger and Tonto. ... Jay Silverheels, of Mohawk heritage, was one of a long line of performers to play the Tonto role. All the actors who played the role from the 1930s to the 1980s were American Indian." (p. 108);

Image 5: Film poster: Dances With Wolves, Majestic Films International, German Release, 1990. Autry Museum of Western Heritage. "Environmentally and socially conscious, Dances With Wolves gained worldwide popularity for its expressions of respect and sympathy for the Indian - even though its own forms of historical manipulation and stereotyping have been described as serious faults." (p. 103);

Image 6: Sundance, Oscar Howe (Yankton), 1973. Casein on paper. The Heard Museum. "One criterion for my painting is to present the cultural life and activities of the Sioux Indians; dance, ceremonies, legends, lore, arts...It is my greatest hope that my paintings may serve to bring the best things of Indian culture into the modern way of life." (p. 122); All quotes are from the catalogue "Powerful Images: Portrayals of Native America" published by Museums West, 1998.

Image 7: Karl Bodmer (artist) Louis Rene Lucien Rollet (engraver), Pehriska-Ruhpa, Moennitari Warrier in the Costume of the Dog Danse, drawn c. 1834, engraved 1840-43, Buffalo Bill Historical Center.

Ed. see additional coverage of this touring exhibition in RLM's Rockwell Museum article.


rev. 11/26/10

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